Monday, April 22, 2013


What do you read when you are in pain?

What do you write when your world ---or the world around you-- is falling apart?

When we are in fear collectively, when we are hurting nationally, when we are mourning together, compassionately and monumentally,  what do we read? What do we write?

Many people turn to poetry.

W.S. Merwin,  the seventeenth Poet Laureate, is quoted on Poetry in Times of Tragedy, a page  on the University of Arizona Poetry Center website as follows: 

People turn to poetry in times of crisis because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said. 
This is such a time.

In the past few months, we have seen children massacred,  bombs detonated, and buildings exploded.  We have watched massive manhunts, gunfights and shots flying in residential neighborhoods. 

We have battled nature and its extreme elements and witnessed the fortitude of humanity. 

And we have witnessed unimaginable pain, courageous heroism, and at the end of the day, a determined unity.  

What do we read in times like these?
What do we write?

At our memorials and public gatherings we read poems.

The president of the University of Arizona read Merwin's poem, To the New Yearat the January 12, 2011 memorial event  following the January 8 tragedy in Tucson
Nikki Giovanni offered words to comfort us after the Virginia Tech shootings in her April 17, 2007 Convocation Address.

To remember Newtown, poetry was written-- Click here and here to read poems featured by CBS Connecticut (Radio WTIC-1080).

Boston is no different--poetry abounds.  Blogger and Young Adult author, Julie Glover offers excerpts of related poems found online and  also  this observation in her blog post, Boston Bombing and National Poetry Month:

Poems capture all kinds of observations, ideas, and emotions, and in the wake of crisis, poetry can express our deepest wounds and hopes.

Joan Murray offers us a selection of poems to name our fear, poems to define our unpredicted courage, and poems to comfort us in two volumes she has edited, Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times and Poems to Live by in Troubled Times. 


One of my favorite poems,The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Symborska,included in the first volume,  walks us through the aftermath of war (or bombings, explosions and massacres)  

She reminds us of those who ease our healing:

After every war
someone has to clean up.

Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all...

She reminds us that somebody makes it possible for us to keep going, to move on, to continue living.

...Those who knew
what was going on here 
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing...

And that courage that has amazed us in the past week---Anne Sexton has cornered the definition for which we have been searching. She has pinned down the thoughts we are  not quite able to  formulate, in her poem, Courage, also included in the same volume:

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there...

What do we offer our children as they deal with horrifying events that loop all day on the television, the images they encounter on the Internet, in the newspapers, and the conversations they inadvertently overhear.

Following the horror of September 11, several writers, including Georgia Heard, felt compelled to provide comfort and hope to our children.  

These writers collected poetry.
They offered poems.

Heard offers classic poems to name the doubts, hold the questions, and point us toward hope in her collection, This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort.


Other writers and teachers, in their wisdom and compassion, provided a space  for both students and adults to explore their feelings, their longings-- the room to attempt to name that which can not be named.  

They offered time to write.

Shelley Harwayne collected writings and drawings and paintings created by children in New York City as they tried to record what they saw, heard, smelled, and felt in response to September 11.  Her amazing anthology, Message to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11.2001, provides us a glimpse of the resilience, the hope and the courage that our children possess.  

And it was not just well-known writers who helped us turn to poetry and writing, but also  teachers like you and me, in their classrooms across the country, who offered opportunities to write. 

First grade students of H. Byron Masterson Elementary in Kennett, Missouri expressed their confidence in the little things, the daily routines, that calmed them.  In their book, September 12th: We Knew Everything Would be All Right,  they share in writing, how they knew they heal. 

Likewise, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project offered writing time and talking time to both students and teachers in their area.  Not only did this begin the healing process for the writers, but offered the public an anthology, Katrina: In Their Own Words, of written work, songs and, photography, but also a CD and radio broadcast, as well.

Lauren Thompson points us toward healing and hope in Hope is an Open Heart, in which she offers definitions of hope in action, paired with gorgeous photographs. Among her offerings are the following:

Hope is remembering that you are not alone.Many others feeljust the way you doMany otherscare...
Hope is a heartthat is open to the world around you.Hope is knowing that  things change--and that we can help things to change for the better.

What do you read when you are in pain?

How do you name your pain, write your healing, and create hope?

Many turn to poetry.

Read previous related post, Poetry: A Place to Stand. 

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

What  poem, novel, story or essay do you read when you are in pain?  Which piece of literature eases your doubts and comforts you in difficult times?

What is the book you reread when times are tough?

What do you write when you are struggling with fear or anger or disappointment in your own life or the world around you?

Write an essay about the piece of  literature and other written work that sustains, encourages,  comforts, and heals you.

Write a poem to name your  unnameable doubts and fears.

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